The eighth edition of the Rugby World Cup has finally kicked off, and boy, has it been worth the wait. We’ve seen three days of compelling rugby, and we can only hope that it gets even better from here on in.
Now as the first round of pool fixtures have taken place, and all teams barring Australia, Scotland, Namibia and Romania having played, it’s time for a recap and a review.
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Recap : POOL A
After a quite spectacular opening ceremony, England kicked things off on Friday with a quite unspectacular performance against Fiji. The Islanders made things very difficult for the hosts, but a virtuoso performance from fullback Mike Brown led England to a crucial bonus-point win by 35-11.
The TMO and ITV commentary team were also in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Wales kicked off their campaign in the familiar confines of the Millennium Stadium against the not so familiar Uruguayans. And the Teros quickly went about introducing themselves, racing into a 6-0 lead. But Wales overran the plucky South Americans, scoring eight tries in a 54-9 win, including a hat-trick to Cory Allen, playing in the injured Jonathan Davies’ position, who duly got injured himself. A less than assured performance, but five points nonetheless.
Recap : POOL B
First, the big one. Japan caused what is quite possibly the biggest boilover in world sport, let alone rugby, by beating two-time champions South Africa in a wonderful advert for rugby. Even my friends in India were marveling at the Brave Blossoms’ performance, who spurned a shot at goal in the dying moments that would have tied the game at 32-32, instead going for the try.
And guess what, they did score the try in the corner, and history was made. For Heyneke Meyer and the Springboks, 2015 is turning out to be a nightmare. If anything, it can only get better from here.
Samoa and the USA played at the same venue a day later, and while there were fewer fireworks, Samoa did do enough to get a narrow 25-16 victory, which is ironically their biggest victory over the United States.
The Eagles scored as many tries as the Samoans (two) and a missed conversion late on denied them a bonus point and a way back into the match.
Recap: POOL C
Tonga and Georgia faced off in the second match of the tournament at Kingsholm, and we had the first upset of the tournament, although it would be quickly eclipsed by the events taking place a few hours later in Brighton.
The Georgians defended like their lives depended on it, making 213 tackles to Tonga’s 48, and no-one exemplified that approach better than captain and man of the match Mamuka Gorgodze, who also scored one try in their 17-10 win.
“Gorgodzilla” later also gave one of the quotes of the year: “We are a small nation, with a big heart.”
It sounds even better in a Georgian accent, trust me.
New Zealand rounded off the action versus Argentina at the Home of Football – Wembley stadium, in front of a crowd of no less than 89,000 spectators – a record for a World Cup match. And Argentina were seemingly inspired by Japan’s heroics of the previous day, playing out of their skin to be leading 16-12 with just under half an hour to play.
But a combination of indiscipline, fatigue, and the superior bench strength of the All Blacks meant that there would be no slip-up from the defending champions, who despite being reduced to 13 men at one stage, came away with a 26-16 victory.
Recap : POOL D
Ireland began their campaign with a routine 50-7 victory over Canada, scoring seven tries through seven different players. Canada gave a good account of themselves, but Ireland had too much class. That’s it really. Not much more to say about this. five points to Ireland. Top of the table. Meh.
France took to the field at Twickenham against an Italian side seemingly primed to build on Japan’s heroics from the preceding game and ambush a “predictably unpredictable” Bleus outfit, who were actually decked out in rouge.
What followed was an insipid match punctuated by a litany of errors, and “coups de sifflet” from referee Craig Joubert. That two front rowers scored the only two tries for France says it all about the match, with the one blemish being what looks like a tournament-ending injury to Yoann Huget. France won 32-10.
Now that we’ve recapped all the action, let’s take a look at the biggest winners, and biggest losers from the first three days of action
The first eight matches had eight mismatches of sorts, some glaring, and some less so. But still, each game had one clear favourite, with the chances of the other team ranging from “not a hope in hell” to “this might just be an upset if the stars align”.
As such, only Canada and Uruguay were resoundingly beaten, and even then there was no capitulation – both teams wore their hearts on their sleeves and could hold their heads high in defeat.
Fiji would rue a few missed kicks at goal that would have otherwise made the opening game a lot more tense, while the United States showed that they are ever-improving.
Italy were the most disappointing of the lot, as their passion during and after the national anthems suddenly evaporated after the first French penalty. But the Azzurri were just the aberration.
Argentina and Georgia showed just how much they’ve improved over the past few years, with sterling defensive displays, and while one team unfortunately ran out of steam, the other held on for a famous win. In a way, I guess it was good that the All Blacks avoided defeat, since I doubt that the internet would be able to handle two astronomical upsets within 24 hours of each other.
And that leaves us with Japan. There really isn’t much that hasn’t been said about them, and the manner in which a team that lost to the World XV a month ago took on the giants of the game is awe-inspiring.
Which leaves us with the talking point: is rugby at a crossroads? Are the minnows here to stay? What should World Rugby do to ensure that the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations is bridged?
For me, the solution is clear. If rugby is to become truly a global game, then it has to demolish the concept of Tiers. Why should the top teams be cocooned from the rest of the rugby fraternity?
Why should the Springboks wait until 2015 to be playing Japan for the first time? Why should the All Blacks have to wait until 2015 to play in Samoa for the first time? It took Argentina and Italy years of knocking at rugby’s front door to be admitted into the big leagues, and these are just two nations.
A good step would be expanding the Six Nations. Now I know that the northern hemisphere unions have a bit of a traditionalist mindset and would be averse to the idea, but having a promotion/relegation system would help the likes of Georgia, Romania, Russia and Portugal.
Similarly, getting more Test matches between the Pacific nations and nations like Argentina and the Big Three will only help their cause.
We can only hope for the best.
Ireland get on to the winners’ list simply because of one reason; that they did their job with no fuss, and crucially, with no injuries.
An All Black victory over the Pumas means that the New Zealanders will most probably top their group, and this means that topping group D is of utmost importance (unless you want to play New Zealand in a quarter-final in Cardiff, or in other words, you’re France). And the Irish took five points when anything less would have been a disaster.
To make things better, France went on to give a totally unconvincing performance against a woeful Italy, failing to score four tries, and also getting Yoann Huget injured for good measure. You would expect Ireland to punish a similar performance from the Azzurri, although Sergio Parisse may make his return by then, and this would mean that Ireland can focus on just getting over the finish line against France in their final pool game.
Plus, Ireland came away almost unscathed from this match. Jonny Sexton was back in form after an unconvincing display at Twickenham, while Cian Healy also made his return after a neck surgery. It’s still too early to say anything, but so far so good for Joe Schmidt’s team.
All Black reserves
45 minutes or so into the game, the All Black supporters were just beginning to quiver in their seats as Argentina, leading 16-12, showed signs that they could emulate Japan in doing the unthinkable.
But then off went Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock, and on came Sonny Bill Williams and Wyatt Crockett. Four minutes later went Nehe Milner-Skudder and Owen Franks, for Beauden Barrett and Charlie Faumuina. This shifted Ben Smith to the wing, with Barrett taking his place at fullback.
And the tide changed. Sonny Bill Williams was the catalyst, sparking an increase in intensity in All Black attacks, as he straightened the line and made a few great offloads, one of which should have resulted in a Milner-Skudder try in the corner. But the All Blacks brushed that aside, because they knew that Argentina were running out of energy, and they camped themselves in the Pumas half.
20 minutes of relentless attack saw them score two tries that sealed the deal, with the final one being scored by replacement Sam Cane, who was given the final pass by Sonny Bill Williams. They even bombed another try, with Kieran Read throwing a long pass out wide forward, denying Richie McCaw a 28th Test try.
The contrast in the performances in the two halves could not be greater. Would the All Blacks be better served with playing those replacements as starters in crucial games, or should they be kept as ‘impact players’ required when things aren’t going to plan? What is not up for debate, however, is that the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Barrett have done their hopes of nailing down a first team place no harm.
It was generally agreed that Pool C would see the All Blacks finish top of the pool, most likely followed by Argentina. Not many people were disputing this, but the Tongans were secretly eyeing an ambush of the Pumas, and snatching a quarter-final berth.
But for this plan to work, they would first have to dispose of the other two teams in the pool. And the first game has not gone to plan at all.
Georgia stole everyone’s hearts, if only for a few hours before Japan came in and did their job, but what they also stole was a possible quarter-final place from Tonga. Now the Islanders will have to defeat Namibia with a bonus point, before their crucial showdown against the Pumas.
You get the feeling that if they fail to win that match, they would be in serious danger of finishing fourth, and having to qualify for the 2019 edition. Not a good start. But at least they have one bonus point more than the Pumas.
Wales (and Yoann Huget)
Although the Welsh came away with an eight-try, bonus-point win over Uruguay, they also saw hat-trick hero Cory Allen hobble off with an injury, in what is becoming a worryingly familiar sight for Welsh fans.
Not just him, but also wing/fullback Liam Williams, and props Paul James and Samson Lee are also injury worries. Allen may even miss the rest of the World Cup. He would thus be joining Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, and Gareth Anscombe among others. And it is for this reason alone that Wales come away from this round of action as losers. They also were unconvincing in their performance.
Giving Cory Allen company is his French counterpart Yoann Huget. The exciting winger did not see much of the ball in France’s win over Italy, but the one time he got a look-in, he injured his knee in the process of sidestepping an Italian defender. Seeing him utterly inconsolable and in tears on the bench was a tough sight. His World Cup is over.
Need I say any more?